Latest News

Space Lawyer Carl Christol Passes Away

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Feb-2012 (Updated: 24-Feb-2012 05:56 PM)

Renowned space lawyer Carl Christol, who literally wrote the book on space law, passed away on February 22 at the age of 98.

Professor Christol pioneered the field of space law and authored "The International Law of Outer Space," as well as seven other books on political science, foreign policy and related topics.   His extensive and distinguished career is summarized in an obituary available on the website of the International Institute of Space Law, in which he was a very active participant.

A graduate of Yale Law School, he spent most of his career as a professor at the University of Southern California.  He also was a retired Army Colonel and recipient of the Bronze Star for service during World War II.

NOAA Caps JPSS Cost at $12.9 Billion Through 2028

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Feb-2012 (Updated: 14-Apr-2014 07:11 PM)

Mary Kicza, who heads the part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that is responsible for weather satellites, said yesterday that NOAA has agreed to a life-cycle cost cap of $12.9 billion for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). 

That may seem like quite a steep price for two satellites, but Kicza explained that the JPSS program pays for more than two JPSS spacecraft, their instruments, launch and operations.   The program also includes costs associated with completing the Total Solar and Spectral Irradiance Sensor (TSIS) that was to have flown on the since-cancelled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  The JPSS-1 satellite cannot accommodate the TSIS instrument, and although NOAA currently has no plans to launch it, the agency is trying to find such an opportunity.   JPSS costs also include building and launching separate spacecraft for search and rescue transponders used to locate and rescue people in distress as part of the international COSPAS-SARSAT system, and the Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS) to collect data from ocean buoys.  Both of those also could not be accommodated on the JPSS-1 satellite.   NOAA had planned to launch them on the Department of Defense's (DOD's) new weather satellites, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), but that program has just been terminated.

Additionally, the JPSS cap covers operating the satellites through the year 2028.

The first JPSS is expected to be launched in early calendar year (CY) 2017 (which is the second quarter of FY2017).  NOAA's FY2013 request for JPSS is $916.4 million, slightly less than the $924 million it received from Congress for FY2012.  Kicza said the Administration plans to keep the program funded at approximately $900 million per year for the next several years.

The NOAA cap is more than what Senate appropriators wanted in their version of the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NOAA (P.L. 112-55).  They wanted to impose a cap of $9.43 billion through 2024 (S. Rept. 112-78), but it was not adopted in the conference report (H. Rept. 112-284).  NOAA said in its briefing slides that the $12.9 billion life cycle cost estimate through 2028 is an increase over its previous estimate of $11.9 billion through 2024 reflecting "an extended estimate of satellite performance."

JPSS is NOAA's polar-orbiting weather satellite program that replaces its part of NPOESS.   NOAA also operates a companion system in geostationary orbit, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), and is in the process of building a new version of those as well.  Called GOES-R, it would get a significant "planned" increase in FY2013:  $802.0 million compared to $615.6 million in FY2012.   GOES-R has had its share of overruns and delays, but NOAA has agreed to a $10.9 billion cap on that program.   That pays for four GOES-R satellites, their instruments, launches and operations through the year 2036.  The first launch is scheduled for late CY2015 (first quarter FY2016).

Kicza, assistant administrator for NOAA's 's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), made the remarks at a briefing on the FY2013 budget request for NESDIS.    Echoing comments by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco during her budget briefing last week, Kicza seemed apologetic that the satellite systems are consuming such a large part of the NOAA budget.   Kicza reminded the audience that 20 NOAA programs were being terminated while the satellite budget is going up 8.8 percent.  It represents 40 percent of the total NOAA request of $5.1 billion, she said.

She lauded the successful launch and initial operations of NASA's Suomi NPP satellite last fall, which will serve as a bridge between NOAA's current generation of polar orbiting weather satelites and JPSS.   The last of NOAA's polar orbiting satellites was launched in 2009.  NOAA officials have been warning Congress for the past two years that because Congress appropriated less funding than requested for JPSS in FY2011 and FY2012 that a data gap is very likely if the satellites meet, but do not exceed, their design lifetimes. 

Scolese to Head Goddard, Lightfoot Coming to NASA Headquarters

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Feb-2012 (Updated: 21-Feb-2012 05:43 PM)

NASA's Chris Scolese and Robert Lightfoot are about to assume new roles at the agency.  Scolese will be the new director of the Goddard Space Flight Center while Lightfoot replaces Scolese at NASA Headquarters.

Scolese is currently NASA's Associate Administrator, the third highest ranking official at the agency and the top civil servant (the Administrator and Deputy Administrator are political appointees).   He served as Acting Administrator after the departure of Mike Griffin while the current Administrator, Charlie Bolden, was being selected and confirmed. He will replace Rob Strain as director of Goddard in Greenbelt, MD; Strain recently left to join Ball Aerospace.

Lightfoot is the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.    He will replace Scolese as Acting Associate Administrator.

Both men are NASA veterans and will assume their new roles on March 5. 

Fifty Years Ago Glenn Sailed Into Orbit; Today, He's Dismayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Feb-2012 (Updated: 21-Feb-2012 08:44 AM)

Human spaceflight has become so common over the past five decades that it may be difficult to remember just how exciting it was when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth 50 years ago today.  For all the achievements of the U.S. human spaceflight program in the subsequent five decades, though, Glenn is dismayed at the state of the program today.

NASA and the nation are celebrating Glenn's accomplishment on February 20, 1962 when he flew into space on Friendship 7 as part of the Mercury program.   He had been beaten into orbit ten months earlier by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the United States was trying mightily to catch up with its superpower rival.   Alan Sheperd reached the threshold of space on May  5, 1961, but his flight was suborbital.   Nonetheless, it was enough to give President John F. Kennedy confidence to announce three weeks later that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

Glenn's flight and others in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs proved that America was good to its word, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969.   Support for human spaceflight diminished dramatically after the Moon race was won, however.   The space shuttle program was approved by President Nixon in 1972 and made its first flight in 1981.   Repeated attempts to develop new systems to replace the shuttle failed.  The 2004 decision by President George W. Bush to focus on returning astronauts to the Moon without a commensurate boost to NASA's budget meant the shuttle program would have to be terminated to free up money for the new program.   The shuttle flew its final mission last year, and the United States currently has no way to launch people into space.   When a new U.S. system will emerge is unclear and is largely dependent on funding.  NASA is anticipating 2017 for the first U.S. commercial human space transportation system and 2021 for its own new system.

Glenn, who now is 90 years old, went on to a career in politics.  He was a U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999     and flew into space for a second time in 1998, becoming the oldest person (77) to make the trip.    Today he speaks with dismay about the state of the U.S. human spaceflight program, complaining that NASA must pay Russia to transport people back and forth to the International Space Station.  In an interview with Bill Harwood published on, Glenn says "I disagreed strongly, and still do, with George Bush's decision (to retire the shuttle)."  He criticized the inability to fully utilize the ISS as a research laboratory because of the lack of a U.S. transportation system and the need to rely on Russia to get up and back, as well as the lack of a U.S. "heavy lift capability."  NASA is currently working on a new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, but it will not make its first test flight until 2017 and its first operational flight until 2021.

Glenn told Harwood: "And yet back in those days, one of the major driving forces in support of the program was the fact that we were in competition with the Soviets.  And yet here we are these 50 years later, (paying) 60-some million dollars per astronaut to go up there and back.  And this is supposed to be the world's greatest space-faring nation?   That part of how we've developed I don't agree with at all.  I don't thnk the shuttle should have been canceled until we had a replacement for it."

He particularly noted that if anything goes wrong with Russia's Soyuz space transportation system "we don't have a manned program" because there is no backup capability.   He is skeptical about commercial crew, not only because "it seems to me it's more accounting than anything else," but because he believes it will take much longer than the companies suggest.  "They say three to five years, but they've been saying three to five years for the last four years.  So I think it's like five to seven to 10 years, something like that."

As for President Obama's space policy, Glenn said that had met with the President in the Oval Office and explained his view that the space shuttle should be retained until a replacement was available.  He reported that the President "just said there wasn't the money to do it.  He's been handed a pretty lousy hand on that one, also, as far as the budget went.  So I couldn't really criticize him too much on that, but I wish he had been able to do that."

The complete interview with Harwood is on

Events of Interest: Week of February 20-24, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2012 (Updated: 19-Feb-2012 10:03 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.

The House and Senate are in recess (except for non-legislative pro forma sessions).

Monday-Tuesday, February 20-21

Tuesday, February 21

Tuesday-Thursday, February 21-23

Thursday, February 23

 Thursday-Friday, February 23-24

House Committee Members Argue Against Cuts to Mars Exploration, Weather Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2012 (Updated: 19-Feb-2012 04:54 PM)

Cutting federal spending may be on the top of Washington’s priority list, but not if it impacts NASA’s Mars and human exploration programs or NOAA’s weather satellites if House science committee members have their way. 

At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Friday, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) sharply criticized the President’s FY2013 budget request for research and development (R&D) for singling NASA out for “unequal treatment.”  Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) joined him in complaining about cuts to the robotic Mars exploration program while other members rued the level of funding for NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). 

The topic of the hearing was the FY2013 budget request for R&D.  John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), was the only witness.  He defended the request which, he said, increases non-defense R&D by five percent over the FY2012 level despite austere budget times. 

Committee Chairman Hall, however, criticized that request because it proposes increases for all the agencies within the committee’s jurisdiction except NASA.   He is particularly concerned about the proposed reductions in NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program and inadequate funding for the Space Launch System (SLS), the new “heavy lift” rocket that NASA is building at congressional direction in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to take astronauts out into the solar system.

Hall stressed that in that Act, Congress directed that the SLS and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle be available to serve as a backup to commercial crew to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  Under NASA’s proposed schedule, however, SLS/Orion system will not be ready for its first crewed flight until 2021, a year after ISS operations are currently scheduled to be discontinued.  Holdren deflected a question from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) about whether the SLS program would remain on its current schedule by saying he “had a cloudy crystal ball” when trying to predict the progress of complex technological projects.  He did, however, assure the congressman that he did not know of any plans to delay it. 

Hall asked Holdren about the decision to use Space Act Agreements for developing commercial crew capabilities and the fact that they do not allow NASA to require companies to meet safety standards.  Holdren demurred, saying that he did not know the details, but said that as far as he knows NASA retains responsibility for the safety of its astronauts and ”if there is a problem in the agreements that would jeopardize that, I am sure we will fix it.” 

Hall also inquired how Holdren could say that the budget represents an “integrated strategy” for Mars exploration “that ensures the next steps for the robotic Mars exploration program,” since there is no next mission to Mars in the budget.  Holdren countered that even though the NASA budget cannot support two planned Mars missions with Europe in 2016 and 2018, “we retain the most vigorous and forward leaning program … in the world” with a rover (Opportunity) already on the surface of Mars and another one (Curioisty) on its way,  two spacecraft (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) already in orbit and another scheduled for launch next year (MAVEN), “and additional missions going forward.”  He insisted that “We are in no way retreating from our commitment to have a vigorous program of Mars exploration including laying the groundwork for human exploration.”  

Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) joined Hall in criticizing cuts to the Mars planetary science program.   She said that the decision could create the perception that the United States is an unreliable partner at a time when international cooperation is more important than ever. Not everyone on the committee agreed with that sentiment, however. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) later said that she considered the NASA request to be “prudent” and suggested that the Europeans may not be able to afford their Mars plans either considering the economic circumstances in Europe. 

In general, Holdren defended the request for NASA, asserting it “honors the priorities” of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, including support for development of SLS and Orion, operations of the ISS through at least 2020, commercial crew, launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in 2018, “an integrated strategy” for the robotic Mars exploration program that supports both science and human exploration goals, a balanced set of Earth and space science missions, a “dynamic” space technology program, and a “strong aeronautics research effort.” 

NOAA’s satellite programs also were debated during the hearing.  Johnson praised the proposed increase for NOAA’s new geostationary weather satellite program, GOES-R, but expressed concern about “the small cut” to NOAA’s new polar-orbiting system, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  She referred to JPSS as a “long-troubled” effort, although it was initiated only in FY2011.  However, it is NOAA’s successor to a long-troubled program -- the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental   Satellite System (NPOESS) – that was terminated by the Obama Administration in the FY2011 budget after 16 years of delays and overruns.  JPSS, however, did not receive its requested funding level in FY2011 or FY2012, and NOAA is warning that there likely will be a gap in data several years from now when existing satellites cease functioning, but the first JPSS is not yet operational. 

Holdren said NOAA’s weather satellites are “crucial” and blamed the potential gap on the previous Administration and Congress itself.   Holdren said “we’ve been threatened for some time with a gap we inherited,” perhaps suggesting that the Bush Administration should have cancelled NPOESS instead of leaving it for President Obama.  “We’re doing everything possible to … minimize that gap even if we don’t now have the capability to avoid it all together,” he asserted.  He pointed to the less-than-requested funding JPSS received for the previous two years and said in the FY2013 budget they are “trying to make up for it.”  In fact, he blamed the need to fund weather satellites for why the NOAA R&D budget overall would decline in FY2013.  “Nobody wanted to reduce … the R&D portfolio’’ at NOAA, “but we absolutely have to minimize the gap,” he said. 

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) complained about cuts to NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS), but Holdren insisted that the most important thing for the NWS is getting basic data about what the atmosphere is doing.  If money cannot be found to pay for the satellites that provide that data, he said, then “all the money in the world poured into the Weather Service won’t make up for the deficit.” 

The hearing was broadly on the R&D budget request and one of the other topics that arose was interaction with China.   Two committee members -- Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Chip Cravaack (R-MN) -- grilled Holdren on why the United States would want to share any technology with China as Rohrabacher said Vice President Joe Biden suggested earlier in the week during a visit by China’s Vice President Xi Jinping.   Holdren insisted that the Administration does not want to share any technologies with China that are harmful to U.S. interests, but there are some where it is in our own best interest to share.  He cited nuclear reactor safety, avoiding theft of nuclear materials from nuclear facilities, influenza, and reducing emissions of pollutants as examples. 

NOAA Administrator: Weather Satellites Vital, But "Loom Large" in Budget

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2012 (Updated: 17-Feb-2012 11:33 AM)

Referring repeatedly to the "painful choices" that had to be made, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), presented her agency's FY2013 budget request at a briefing on Thursday.  The need to fund the nation's "vital" civil weather satellites means that other NOAA programs will be cut, she said, even though the agency as a whole is requesting a slight increase compared to FY2012.  

NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, is building a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites -- the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) -- as well as a new generation of geostationary weather satellites -- the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series.  The FY2013 JPSS budget request is $916.4 million, a slight decrease from the $924 million NOAA received for FY2012.  For GOES-R, the request is $802 million, up substantially from $615.6 million in FY2012 -- Lubchenco called it a "planned increase."   NOAA's total request is $5.1 billion, an increase of $154 million over FY2012.

Cost overruns and schedule delays in building the new weather satellites, highlighted by the programmatic failure of the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), have left Congress skeptical of the program management capabilities of NOAA and its NPOESS partner, the Department of Defense (DOD).   DOD has its own polar orbiting weather satellites -- the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).   NPOESS was supposed to merge the NOAA and DOD polar-orbiting systems, but the Obama Administration gave up on the effort in FY2011 after 16 trouble-filled years.  The decision followed a final independent review that concluded the two agencies' cultures were simply too disparate for them to work together effectively.

The NPOESS divorce terms were that NOAA and DOD would revert to separate systems.  NOAA's is JPSS and more urgently needed since all of NOAA's polar orbiting satellites already are in orbit.   DOD still has two of its legacy DMSP satellites "in the barn" awaiting launch when needed.  (DOD was planning a new system, the Defense Weather Satellite System, but it now also has been cancelled.)

The Obama Administration included a sizeable increase for NOAA to get started on JPSS in the FY2011 budget.  Unfortunately, that request was swept up in congressional turmoil as Republicans regained control of the House.  Decisions on the FY2011 budget were delayed until half way through that fiscal year and many programs -- including JPSS -- were held to their previous year's level.   Since the FY2010 level reflected the NPOESS program where NOAA and DOD were sharing the costs, it was less than half of what NOAA needed for JPSS.

The program fared better in FY2012, receiving $924 million of the $1.07 billion requested, but the damage was done.  NOAA is concerned that there is very likely to be a "data gap" when existing satellites expire before the first JPSS is launched.   Kathy Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of NOAA, said yesterday that there may still be a data gap even if Congress agrees to the funding level for JPSS included in the FY2013 request. 

NOAA launched its last polar-orbit weather satellite in 2009.   It has a five year design lifetime.  A NASA research satellite, Suomi NPP, that was designed to test new technologies for the NPOESS program and was launched last fall will be pressed into service as an operational weather satellite to bridge the gap until the first JPSS is launched in late 2016 or early 2017.    Suomi NPP has a three-year design lifetime.  While satellites often exceed their design lifetimes, it is risky to bank on that, which is why NOAA is worried.  Sullivan said that if all the satellites meet, but do not exceed, their design lifetimes, a 20-22 month data gap could result, especially taking into account that it requires several months for the JPSS satellite to be tested and calibrated after launch.

Lubchenco said yesterday that the FY2013 request provides a "stable funding path for the next five years" for JPSS and that the agency has committed to a funding cap for the lifecycle costs of the program.    Senate appropriators included a cap in their version (S. Rept. 112-78) of the FY2012 appropriations bill that funds NOAA (P.L. 112-55), but it was not adopted in the conference report (H. Rept. 112-284).  The Senate wanted to cap the program at $9.43 billion through 2024.  Lubchenco did not specify if that is the cap to which she is now committed.

The Senate appropriators fretted about the "long term drain" JPSS could have on other NOAA programs.  That sentiment was echoed in yesterday's briefing as well.   Lubchenco stated that "the need to fund polar and geostationary satellites imposes serious constraints on the rest of NOAA's budget."  Later, In response to a question about whether cuts to NOAA's education programs might be restored next year, she replied that satellites "will continue to loom large in our budget." 

The GOES-R program has had its own significant overruns, although it appears to be on track at the moment.   The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports about the program, most recently in 2010.   The first of the GOES-R series is expected in the first quarter of FY2016.  Lubchenco called the geostationary weather satellites "an unblinking eye in the sky" to monitor hurricanes and other weather phenomena.

Lubchenco's clear message, in fact, is that weather satellites are vital to many of NOAA's other programs, including fisheries, coastal management, and building a "weather-ready nation," not to mention many other aspects of American life, the economy and national security.  Therefore, they must be a top priority for NOAA, she said.

NOAA's FY2013 request also supports two smaller satellite programs, JASON-3 and DSCOVR.   JASON-3 is the third in a series of U.S.-European ocean altimetry satelites for which $30 million is requested, up from $19.7 million provided in FY2012.   DSCOVR is a space weather satellite that dates back to the Clinton Administration when it was called Triana.  Vice President Al Gore was closely associated with developing the idea for the satellite and its launch was deferred for political reasons after George W. Bush became President.   The return of White House control to Democrats in 2009 gave the project new life and NASA, NOAA and DOD are working together to get the spacecraft ready for launch and into space.  NOAA is requesting $22.9 million for FY2013, compared to $29.8 million provided for FY2012.

NASA Science Officials: News Not Entirely Bleak for Mars, PU-238 Restart Still Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2012 (Updated: 16-Feb-2012 01:36 PM)

NASA may be ending its plans to launch two Mars spacecraft with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2016 and 2018, but smaller Mars missions are not out of the question according to John Grunsfeld, the new head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD).  He and Jim Green, director of SMD's planetary science division, tried to paint a less than bleak picture of the future of NASA's Mars exploration program during a budget briefing on Monday.   At the same time, Green reaffirmed NASA's need for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which is needed to power some NASA solar system exploration spacecraft.

The FY2013 budget request for NASA cuts the planetary science budget from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion.  Consequently, NASA has informed ESA that it will not be able to participate in two robotic Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 the two agencies were planning to execute cooperatively.   The 2016 mission is called ExoMars.  The planetary science community has reacted with dire warnings about the consequences of foregoing those missions as well as postponing plans for other planetary programs such as exploration of the outer planets (Jupiter and beyond) and their moons.   The Planetary Society said the cuts "strike at the heart of one of NASA's most productive and successful programs over the past decade."

NASA's total budget request of $17.711 billion is slightly less than the agency received for FY2012 -- $17.770 billion after being adjusted for a $30 million rescission included in the agency's FY2012 appropriations bill.  SMD's budget would decline from $5.074 billion to $4.911 billion.  Earth science, heliophysics and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would get increases, while planetary science and the non-JWST portions of the astrophysics program would decrease.   (See our FY2013 NASA budget request fact sheet for details.)

Grunsfeld stressed that a NASA Mars mission, Curiosity, is currently enroute to Mars with landing expected in August, and another Mars probe, MAVEN, is scheduled for launch in 2013.   He did not rule out smaller U.S. missions in 2016 and 2018, but not the "flagship" class missions that ESA and NASA were discussing.   The ESA-NASA missions were first steps in a series of mission intended to culminate in returning a sample of Mars to Earth.   Grunsfeld said that he "hoped" a sample return mission still could be accomplished within 20 years.  As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden explained at his budget briefing earlier in the day, he has charged Grunsfeld, NASA's Chief Scientist, NASA's Chief Technologist, and NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations to develop an integrated strategy for Mars exploration that would support both human and robotic exploration.

Even though NASA's planetary aspirations are being scaled back, Green said that the agency still needs DOE to restart production of Pu-238, an artificially produced isotope.   Three reports from the National Research Council (NRC) since 2009 have characterized the need for "Pu-238 restart" as critical.   DOE owns the facilities where Pu-238 can be created, but they were closed years ago.  Subsequently, DOE purchased Pu-238 from Russia, but Russia canceled its contract with DOE in 2009.   Historically, DOE produced the Pu-238 and provided it to NASA.  In its FY2010 budget request, the Obama Administration asked for $30 million in DOE's budget to restart production, but Congress said no because it felt NASA should fund it.  In FY2011, the Administration split the costs equally between the two agencies with the idea that NASA would transfer its money to DOE.  The NASA funding was approved, but not DOE's.   The situation was repeated for FY2012.   

This year, the Administration is not trying to win support for DOE funding for Pu-238 production.  The only requested funding is in NASA's budget -- $10 million.   Green said NASA transferred the money it received to DOE and it is being used for studies on how much Pu-238 could be delivered and when using DOE's existing facilities. 

Pu-238 is needed for spacecraft that cannot rely on solar energy to produce electricity to power instruments and systems because they travel too far from the Sun or will be in darkness on lunar or planetary surfaces for long periods of time.   NASA has used Radioisotope Power Sources (RPS's) for decades for these types of spacecraft.   When it determined its requirements in 2009, many such probes were planned.

The clear message from the NASA budget briefings on Monday is that no new flagship missions -- the most expensive -- are being planned for the indefinite future.   A number of lunar surface probes that were to support the Constellation program also disappeared when that program was cancelled.   The question then is how much Pu-238 is needed.   Green said that several of the contenders for selection in the smaller Discovery and mid-size New Frontiers classes would need Pu-238, so the agency still considers Pu-238 restart to be crucial.  

Critics of the cutbacks to planetary exploration blame cost overruns on JWST.   NASA officials refused to make that connection, however, insisting that the smaller budget should be expected since development of Curiosity and two other planetary spacecraft -- LADEE and MAVEN -- has ended or soon will.   

The JWST overrun, however, has impacted funding for other astrophysics missions.   Chief among them is the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which was the top large space mission recommended by the 2010 NRC decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics.  Grunsfeld confirmed there is no money in the FY2013 budget to begin development of WFIRST, whose purpose is three-fold:  to search for planets in solar systems elsewhere in the universe (exoplanets), conduct an all-sky infrared survey, and try to unravel the secrets of dark energy.  Instead, NASA is hoping for a small role in ESA's dark energy mission, Euclid.

The teleconference ended before questions could be asked about plans for Earth science or heliophysics.    Both budgets would increase in FY2013, although the OCO-2 mission could be delayed for as many as two years.  The original Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was lost when its Taurus XL launch vehicle failed.   NASA quickly began to build a replacement anticipating a relatively fast relaunch, but another Taurus XL failed dooming another NASA earth science satellite (GLORY).   The OCO-2 spacecraft should be completed in FY2013, but  NASA is continuing to assess its options for launching it and states that the launch could slip to 2015.    

Third Time's the Charm -- Russia's Proton Rocket Successfully Orbits SES-4

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Feb-2012 (Updated: 14-Feb-2012 11:13 PM)

Russia succeeded in launching a communications satellite for SES today after two previous attempts were scrubbed.

In an anomalous situation for the Russian space launch industry, two previous attempts to launch the SES satellite in December 2011 and January 2012  encountered technical problems close to launch and the rocket had to be removed from the launch pad for repairs.  Designated SES-4 or NSS-14, the satellite was successfully lofted today.  The need to roll back from the launch pad received considerable media attention because Russia's aerospace industry is experiencing an unusual wave of accidents and failures.


New FCC Decision Dooms LightSquared - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Feb-2012 (Updated: 16-Feb-2012 10:18 AM)

UPDATE:   Links to the FCC announcement and its request for comments (due March 1) have been added and the article slightly rewritten accordingly.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to revoke its year-old provisional decision to allow the company LIghtSquared to proceed with its mobile broadband system because of concerns it will interfere with GPS receivers.

LightSquared wants to create a hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband system.  It received provisional FCC approval to proceed in January 2011 as long as it could demonstrate that its signals would not interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that are ubiquitous in the aviation, automobile, personal data assistant and many other markets -- not to mention national security.   The 2011 FCC decision set off a firestorm of opposition that resulted in a flurry of congressional hearings lambasting LightSquared.  The most recent was last week.

The February 14 statement by FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun  states that the FCC will indefinitely suspend its January 2011 decision and release a request for public comment.  That request was released on February 15; comments are due March 1, 2012.

The FCC action responds to a letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  The FCC governs use of the radio frequency spectrum by the private sector, while NTIA governs its use by the goverment.   NTIA wrote to the FCC Tuesday saying that recent tests show there is "no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time."

LightSquared insists that the problem is that manufacturers of GPS receivers are to blame for any interference.   It says that it designed its system in conformance with the FCC's technical requirements, but the GPS receivers were built so that they listen for signals outside the band in which they are supposed to be operating.  The company asserts that the recent tests cited by the NTIA were flawed.  

Events of Interest


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